The man is sitting, cross-legged, in his dressing room. It's a shot you've seen before in movies about actors and the theater — the star performer in repose, waiting to go onstage. Except this time, the guy waiting to tread the boards is…wait, is he levitating?!? Later, we'll see this same gent — a movie star named Riggan Thomson, best known for playing a feathered superhero named Birdman in a series of blockbusters — moving objects with his mind and flying throughout New York City. (The fact that Thomson is played by Michael "I'm Batman" Keaton adds on a whole other layer of meta.) Thomson has fallen on hard times, it seems, since leaving the franchise. So he's come to Broadway to stage a theatrical production based on Raymond Carver's bleak short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." His costumed alter ego, however, keeps popping up to talk trash and undermine his efforts. Did we mention that a giant, screeching metal eagle also shows up? And that the movie you're watching is essentially made to resemble one long, continuous single shot?
An anything-goes backstage comedy about an actor free-falling through an existential crisis, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is already being touted as a major Oscar contender and the official start of a Michael Keaton comeback. But it's also proving to be a career reboot for Alejando González Iñárritu, a filmmaker who'd made his name making multi-layered, multi-narrative dramas (see Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) and who had self-admittedly hit a bit of a creative dead end. Like Riggan, the Mexican director felt dogged by chronic self-doubt — and like his protagonist, he went out on a limb and gambled on something completely different to shake things up. With help from Keaton and a cast of A-listers (including Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis), Iñárritu has found his groove again.
In a rollicking, no-holds-barred interview with Rolling Stone, the filmmaker talked about he mined his own artistic rut for Birdman's story, how he pulled off getting Keaton to run through Times Square in his underwear and why he thinks blockbusters are ruining everything.
Would it be safe to say that this film came from a place of personal creative frustration?
[Laughs] Yeah, it is very safe to say that! I have a lot of what you might call creative self-loathing — I have pretty high expectations, and they seem to consistently be higher than what I'm able to accomplish. Or let me put it to you this way: Inside me, there's a chronically unsatisfied guy who is always telling me that nothing is ever good enough. I finally got to the point where I just said to this guy: "Who the fuck are you to tell me this is wrong? This is all that I can do!" It took years of meditation to recognize who this internal dictator was, and it wasn't until a few years ago that I thought, this has the makings of a movie, I just don't know how I could make it work. It wasn't until I came across the idea of an actor trying to put things back on track that I felt like I'd found a way to do it. That planted the seed.
So how did this vague notion develop into what became Birdman?
Well, the next step was to put down some defining lines. I knew immediately after I had the idea that I wanted to do it as if it was one single shot. I really wanted to submerge people in Riggan's point of view — the ego is such an abstract concept that you need to be right there with him as he's experiencing what is a kind of madness. You wake up every day and you live your life as if it's a Steadicam shot, so why couldn't we do the film that way? It became a puzzle to solve as I was putting it together in my head. So I contacted some friends of mine — [screenwriters] Nicolás Glacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo — told them basic idea and what I was thinking. I knew how I wanted to the movie to begin, with that shot of Riggan floating; I had an idea of what the middle point should be; and sort of knew how I wanted it to end. I had the spine, and nothing else. That kicked off two years of collaborating, and the result is what you see.
It's smart to start off with him levitating in his dressing room — the whole notion of reality goes out the window at that point.
Exactly. Anything goes from here on out.
Why an actor in a superhero film? Would it have seemed too autobiographical if you'd made him a filmmaker?
No, not too autobiographical…I just felt like I could do it in a more honest way if I made him an actor. The only thing I ask from an artist is to be honest — in the same way that all I ask from my dentist is to not fuck my mouth up and ask from my doctor is to not kill me [laughs]. But I'd be lying if I said the movie didn't have a lot of me in there. A lot of what I was struggling with and was surrounded by over the last 10 years, from dealing with actors to having my own ego work against me…that's me. It almost didn't matter whether I made him a movie star in the end, because I know what Riggan speaks of. I have the authority to say I know exactly what he's going through. [Pause] And superhero movies are everywhere now, so that was an easy choice.
Clearly, by casting Michael Keaton, you're taking advantage of the fact that he has a screen history that he brings to the role…
Sure, although that wasn't why I cast him. Yes, there's a certain meta aspect of things thanks to him being a pioneer in the whole superhero franchise thing. You can't deny that. You could say the same thing about casting Edward Norton as a New York actor who's intense and has a reputation for being a prick [laughs]. But I really just needed someone who could do both comedy and drama equally well, and there really are, to my mind, very few actors who can do that better than Michael. He has that spark with both. I needed someone to play flawed but still be likable and not sentimental. That's Michael.
I think of him as actor who's associated with a time in movies before everything become so cool and so cynical and it was all just killing people but in such an ironic way…[laughs]. I hate that bullshit. I just hate it. It's like David Foster Wallace said, the irony in our culture — it's just ruining everything. And Michael is the opposite of that. To me, he represents the sort of humanism that a lot of movies have been missing.
I'd heard that when you asked him to play the part, his reply was…
"Is this a joke? Are you making fun of me?" Yeah, something along those lines. Then I explained to him why I was asking him to play the part, and he understood I was serious after about five minutes. I told him about how challenging it would be and he said, "Yeah, yeah. let's do this, it sounds great. I'm in." [Pause] I don't think he knew what he getting into, frankly. I think he was a little drunk. We drank a really good bottle of wine that night [laughs].
What do you mean "he didn't know what he was getting into"?
He thought it would be a lot of broad strokes. But before he showed up, we'd designed every single movement he'd have to make — so when he showed up on set, it was "Okay, you have to say your line here, stop here, catch up to here, say this then, and stop right on this mark when the camera goes by." It had to be very technically precise. So naturally, he started to freak out. Never mind the digging he'd have to do for the performance, he'd also have to do long takes and hit all these complicated marks to make everything work. Once Michael keyed in, though, he loved it.
Just how hard was it to co-ordinate those long shots?
Do you know the phrase "The word water will not wet you?" It's one thing to write down an idea and another thing entirely to execute it. Right now, I'm working on a Western [The Revenant, starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Tom Hardy] and I'd written a scene in the script that simply says. "Indians attack." That's two words, one fucking line — and now everyone on the production is paying for it, including me!
It was the same idea with making this seem like it was all one continuous shot: Yes, it's a great idea. But now we have to do it with real actors and cameras, and it has to work like a jazz piece. We started with what was basically an empty space, literally painted lines on the floor. I hired some friends to read the lines, and then we walked through stuff — "Okay, 50 steps over here, turn here, walk down this way." We were measuring corridors to see how far the space was and how long it took to say a line. Then we designed the set around the needs of the script, instead of the other way around. Chivo [cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's nickname] knew that he needed, say, two lights here and four lights here to make a take work, so we designed around that too.
To me, the technical co-ordination of everything was less important — or made me less anxious, maybe — then where to put the camera. You have two people having a conversation and no way to do coverage; how do you film it? Do you go back and forth? Do you stay on one character? What will make this scene funnier, or more dramatic? You have one chance to figure it out while you're shooting, you know. We were all shitting our pants — me, Chivo, the actors. We were all exposed; if a scene doesn't work or ends up being wrong, it's not like I can cut it out of the script. Everything fits together perfectly. Remove one piece, and you're fucked. But look, what I filmed is what was happening in front of me. Like I said, I wanted it to be honest. And those long takes, they will give you honesty.
Speaking of exposed, you have Michael Keaton running through the streets of Times Square in his underwear, in front of an actual crowd. How did you pull that off?
Yeah, that was…crazy [laughs]. It was the only shot we did where we planned it and planned it in advance, and when we came time to shoot it, we didn't know how to do it. One, I could not afford to hire a lot of extras. Two, the authorities aren't going to close Time Square — maybe for Vanilla Sky at 6am, you know, but not us at 8pm at night! You can't shoot too late because there are no people, and you can't shoot too early because then there are too many people, and they're all looking at the camera or chasing Michael Keaton in his tighty-whiteys [laughs]. So what do you do?
Then one day, around the middle of the shoot, I was walking around Union Square and I began to hear these kids playing drums really loudly. There was a big crowd around them and it suddenly occurred to me that the beat they were playing, it sounded just like my score. I realized if we took the musicians we were using and put them in the middle of Times Square, everybody would be paying attention to them — and we'd be able to get Michael to run right behind them in his underwear, right around the corner. Ka-boom! [Makes explosion gesture with his hands] That's what we did. We were able to use real people and still manipulate the situation. We just needed to put a little meat in the water for the fishes.
Edward Norton plays a Method-y actor who thrives on chaos and being difficult. Is his character based on anybody specific?
I won't tell you whom, but yes, he's based on several real people — including Edward Norton.
You remember the scene where Michael's character and Edward's character are reading the script, and Edward starts manipulating the director? "Well, wait a minute, what if you did this, blah blah blah?" When I was directing that scene, he started doing it to me. He turned into his character, telling me what to do. I was like, "What the fuck are you doing?" I just started laughing, telling him "This is why I hired you." "Right, right. But really though, why is the camera here when you could…" "Shut the fuck up!" [Laughs]
Explain the subtitle of the movie.
It's a reference to Riggan's total lack of experience in the theater world, how he goes into this for what may or may not be the right reasons but, somehow, it helps him get to a place where he can express himself better. An artist going into something ignorantly yet it pays off.
Or like, say, a filmmaker who's never made a comedy suddenly taking on a backstage farce about a guy having an existential crisis…
Yes, exactly. I felt like Riggan Thomson most days. You know, what the fuck am I doing here? But like one of the characters says, "You have to recognize the attempt even if you fail." Or something like that.
I have to say, my cast had a lot of trust in me on this. It wasn't like they signed on with somebody who's made a bunch of great comedies; they came on board knowing that I had never done anything like this before. It's the difference between making an album in a studio — you can lay down drum tracks here, put in a bass line there — and playing live in front of an audience. You fuck up, you have to keep going.
It's funny that you spend a lot of time ripping into how superhero films are destroying creativity — and then you mount a big superhero spectacle right in the middle of the movie, complete with explosions and a giant metal bird?
I mean, they are ruining things in a lot of ways. My kid will come home from seeing the latest Transformers movie and I'll ask him, "How was it?" "AMAZING!" "What was it about?" "I don't know, but it was amazing!" He couldn't figure it out because it fucking didn't matter. I feel like these things are giving people so many tastes at once in their mouth that if you were to give them something simple, like a grape, they couldn't taste the sweetness of it.
Look, I'm no purist — there are good superhero films and there are bad ones. Movies started out as an extension of a magic trick, so making a spectacle is part of the game. I had a lot of fun designing a huge fucking metal eagle to attack New York City [laughs]. It's just that we've been overwhelmed by these movies now. They keep taking up room that could be going to smaller films.
You mean "art films"?
I fucking hate that term, art films. No, films about human beings. Those aren't art films. They should just be called "films."